Explore this beautiful region
by Lesley O’Malley Keyes
A visit to wine country makes a great vacation any time of the year. The abundance of lovely small hotels and great restaurants enhance the experience. Easily accessible from San Francisco, wine country can be part of a two-center vacation with the city. This is one of my favorite trips to take!
Each area of wine country differs slightly. For example, the Napa Valley, about an hour-and-a-half drive from San Francisco, is one of the most famous wine regions in the world, set in a beautiful countryside with many wineries within a short driving distance of one another. The finest Cabernet Sauvignon and chardonnays are made here. The area you choose to visit may be based on the type of wines you would like to taste, the location, or the exclusivity of the wineries. Paso Robles, for example, offers many new and very interesting small wineries in a variety of terrains, and it’s just a three-hour drive from San Francisco.
When to Visit
Tips for planning your trip
December & January
Although the vines are dormant, so are many tourists! This means you can visit the less-crowded wineries at a more leisurely pace.
A great time for photographers to visit and capture the colorful wild mustard flowers and many other wild flowers blooming among the vineyards.
March & April
With the wild flowers still in bloom, the vines begin to bud and visitor season officially begins.
May through August
The vines are full and picturesque and the weather is hot. There is always an air of great expectation for the upcoming harvest.
September & October
This is harvest time and one of the busiest times to visit.
The vines and trees show off their fall colors—a spectacular time to visit!
First designate a driver for the day. (Or hire a limousine!) Choose three or four wineries to visit, allowing time to linger over lunch and to take every possible photo opportunity. There are some fabulously interesting wine tours. Try a Champagne lovers’ wine trail, tasting some of the finest sparkling wines in Napa and Carneros. Learn how these wineries make sparkling wine in the methode Champenoise, the traditional French method of making sparkling wine in the bottle.
Why not try Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves for great wines and exquisite views from the terrace? Their tasting room is set up like a wine bar. You pay by the glass and can bring your picnic lunch to enjoy inside or out on the terrace. With its spectacular chateau off of Highway 121, Domaine Carneros, founded by Champagne Taittinger, offers 30-minute tours throughout the day. Domaine Chandon was established by the great French Champagne house of Moet & Chandon in the 1970s, following a decision to make sparkling wine in California. It is set in beautiful gardens with its own gourmet restaurant. Mumms Napa provides one of the best tours, in my opinion. It includes a tastefully decorated fine art gallery and Bob the robot hard at work in the bottling area!
You may also choose to concentrate on Napa Valley wineries taking Highway 29 up from Yountville to St. Helena and include some of the most famous and historic wineries. Robert Mondavi, the symbol of the Napa Valley and one of the most visited wineries, has been instrumental in establishing worldwide recognition for this area. The winery was established in 1966 when Robert departed the family-owned winery of Charles Krug. Because of his success and great vision, many consider Robert Mondavi to be the father of California wine. The tour gives you the whole history as well as great tasting opportunities.
Beaulieu Vineyards should not be missed, either. Founded in 1900 by George de Latour, this is one of the oldest wineries in the valley. Beaulieu Vineyards is famous for its fine reserve wines.
Wine tasting may be the reason for choosing this vacation, but don’t forget to explore the many picturesque towns along the way and to try as many restaurants as possible—the food is excellent, whether you choose casual or fine dining. Other activities to enhance your experience include biking, horse riding, golf, and hot air ballooning.
The small, busy town of Calistoga at the north end of the Napa Valley is worth a visit. It has many fine stores, restaurants, and hotels. Visit the elegant seven-room Chanric Inn, or stay in your very own private cottage nestled in the trees at the Cottage Grove Inn. While Napa, located in the south of the valley, is a little more modern, it offers equally good accommodations and makes a good base. Two great inns there are 1801 First Inn and the White House Inn & Spa. Both offer great service at their close-to-town locations.
Take a side trip to Healdsburg, too, situated in the northern Sonoma Wine Country. This small town is very sophisticated and offers fine dining opportunities and superb accommodations at Les Mars, a gracious country house-style estate.
Lesley O’Malley Keyes’s career spans managing a group of travel agencies and a staff charged with writing hotel guides for Conde Nast.